In the last edition of Nouse, an article was published bemoaning the poor treatment of mental illness in mainstream cinema. It highlighted the lazy and potentially harmful trope of “the malicious mentally ill”, those characters who are best avoided because they are a danger to those around them. This cliché often comes at the expense of a genuine, well thought-out motive for a given character’s wild or violent actions. It is a serious issue and one that needs to be addressed by Hollywood. For now, however, find solace in the indie. For mental illness to be dealt with properly, the filmmakers have to show an interest in mental health as an issue and take the time to explore it in their characters, which, let’s be honest, is not a very commercially-minded approach. That is why it is perhaps necessary that the kind of films Nouse was lamenting a lack of are absent from the mainstream.
I am writing this article, however, to highlight a shining example of one way in which mental illness should be shown on screen, in the form of Nicholas Connor’s Northern Lights. It is Connor’s first feature film and is about as small as they come; made for a relatively tiny budget in his hometown of Oldham, it has not yet secured the financial backing for a cinema release. Yet, for the few of us who have had the opportunity to see it, Northern Lights reveals a future directorial star. Connor’s film is astonishingly assured for somebody so young and tackles difficult issues in an engaging and sensitive manner, answering many of the criticisms levelled at the film industry in its portrayal of mental illness.
The slim plot of the film follows teenager Emma (Katie Quinn), who is trying to cope with the loss of her mother, exam stress and her battle with anxiety. She is aided in her struggles by her best friend Rob (Rhys Cadman), who quietly wishes that she would be more than his friend, and her cheeky, often funny, younger sister Mia (Megan Grady). It is a heartfelt, witty and ultimately very moving film and one of its greatest strengths is the way Connor deals with Emma’s mental illness.
A key decision that Connor makes, is to take the time to convey how Emma is feeling. Mental illness can be a very difficult thing to understand for those who have not suffered from it (and sometimes for those who have, too). Nouse pointed out that, too often, films choose to show how dangerous the mentally ill can be, but often neglect to show the pain they go through themselves. Here, the focus is on Emma and what she suffers. This is attempted both through a lengthy close-up monologue, where Emma describes her panic attacks to a psychiatrist, and through a visual interpretation of her feelings. Shots of Emma trapped in a box and struggling to breathe underwater suggest a sense of entrapment where simply crying out is not an option. These scenes are cut quickly and with rapid light movements, adding a sense of disorientation to Emma’s and the audience’s experience.
This is a great example of how Connor uses the perfectly-suited medium of cinema to educate his audience and spread awareness of mental illness. He can also be seen as doing this through the character of football-mad Rob, whose heart condition prevents him from playing the beautiful game. Whilst the parallels are not immediately obvious, both Rob and Emma are struggling to cope with the limitations their illnesses have placed on their lives. By linking the physical and the mental, Connor can help to break through the problems created by the “invisibility” of mental symptoms.
Despite spending time showing Emma’s illness and exploring its impact on her, Northern Lights does not fall into the trap of letting it define her. In the Nouse article, it was lazy filmmaking that used mental illness as a plot device or a cover-all motive for psycho-villains that came off worst. Emma’s illness clearly affects her, but her life and decisions are also affected by her exams, her heavy-drinking father, her grief at her mother’s death and her possible feelings for Rob. This is a film that takes mental illness seriously, but shows how it can fit into somebody’s life alongside various other joys and miseries. Emma does not go on a rampage, nor does she go into a mental hospital or attempt suicide. She represents those with minor or moderate mental illness who struggle and carry on with it as a part of their daily lives, a section of the population that is perhaps forgotten by the movies because it’s not quite sensationalist enough.
As well as being excellent in its personal examination of Emma’s character, Northern Lights also takes the time to tackle mental illness as a wider issue. When young Mia says she needs a “psychiologist” because she got angry at school, it highlights the naïve perception of the issue and how education on it should perhaps be more common, more in depth and begin at a younger age. Rather than just showing its effects on one character, Northern Lights is a film that is properly engaged with the issue of mental illness, without letting it bog down the rest of the story.
Northern Lights is by no means perfect, but it is a touching piece of cinema that showcases a lot of talent, much of it still to fully develop. It feels as though it has been made by people who really care about their characters and the stories they are telling and that is what the film industry needs if it is to improve its portrayal of mental illness. Connor’s next film is about a boy caring for his mother after she suffers a stroke and is being made in collaboration with the Stroke Association. Perhaps there is a trend here, one of Connor making sympathetic films about difficult and emotive subjects that also aim to help raise awareness and tackle the issue at hand. Long may it continue.